Melanie McFadyean obituary

The outstanding characteristic of the journalist, writer, and lecturer Melanie McFadyean, who has died of cancer aged 72, was fearlessness. To this was added a wild sense of humour, a generosity of spirit and, most of all perhaps, an empathy with the dispossessed. She was a campaigner with an eye only for the subject, and never for her byline. It was this that made her effective in the world.

She wrote of her mother, Marion Guttman, a refugee from Nazi Germany, in Five Houses, an effortlessly elegant 2006 essay in Granta magazine. Marion, she said, “lost her identity, her nationality, and a large fortune. In her the shock has engendered pragmatism rather than nostalgia”.

It did not engender pragmatism, or nostalgia, in her daughter. Melanie’s journalism was driven. She quickly shed any tendency to proselytise to become a superb and witty writer.

Matters of social justice, and the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, in particular children, were burning issues for her: “Imagine your own child taken from her bed at dawn by men in uniform,” she wrote in the Guardian in 2009, “bundled into a van and ushered through the barbed-wire gateways of a detention centre. Any detention without charge is unacceptable, and that of children doubly so.”

In the London Review of Books she detailed how the law of joint enterprise could tangle the innocent as well as the guilty. In the Guardian and Observer and on television she repeatedly returned to the case of Ben Needham. He was the toddler who vanished from the Greek island of Kos in 1991. From the 1990s into the 2010s, in print and on television, she covered the story and detailed the complex lives of the family that had been left with that still unresolved mystery. She highlighted foreign prisoners in British jails, and whether Gulf war syndrome in soldiers was the result of exposure to chemical weapons agents; she interviewed Stephen Frears in the Oldie.

As agony aunt on Just Seventeen magazine from its launch in 1983 until 1986, her Dear Melanie column brought comfort and practical advice to otherwise uninformed teenage girls. With her close friend Robert Maciver, she was involved in the launch of his teen magazine, Kicks, in 1985. I met Melanie through Robert in the late 70s, and we became good friends. Strikingly good-looking, funny and serious – and, to a few, overpowering – Melanie was impossible to ignore.

Over the years she contributed to many more papers, magazines, organisations and television companies. These included the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Cosmopolitan, and Marie Claire. From 2001 to 2015 she taught journalism at City, University of London. And at City it was that ability to draw people in, to make connections, that marked her influence on generations of students.

She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, and wrote a long, funny and acute piece in the Guardian on the subject. “I have dark hair and had I not had cancer and gone bald, I would never have known how much fun it is being blond. I bought a cheap but stylish platinum wig from World of Wigs. My son said I looked like Pauline Fowler in EastEnders. I sometimes cover my driving mistakes with rude hand gestures, but as a platinum blonde I had no need.”

Born in London, Melanie was the second daughter of Colin McFadyean, an international lawyer and wartime naval officer, and Marion, who arrived in England in 1937 and would later earn her living in everything from picture restoration to garden design. The couple divorced in 1960.

Melanie was educated at Sherborne school for girls, in Dorset, but was expelled after a year and joined her sister, Andrea, at Cranborne Chase school in Wiltshire, which has since closed. “It was,” she wrote in Granta, “such a degenerate and lawless place that I had to go in search of the rules in order to break them. It took me two and a half years to get expelled.”

In 1974 she obtained a first in English, followed by a master’s, at the University of Leeds. She returned to London and began teaching art at a Hackney school. In 1976 she switched to teaching English at a further education college in the borough.

In 1979 she went to Belfast, to understand and write about the politics and struggle, particularly that of the women. One result was Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland, the Women’s War (1984), co-written with Roisin McDonough and Eileen Fairweather. Also in 1984 came, with Margaret Renn, Thatcher’s Reign: A Bad Case of the Blues. Drugswise was published in 1985 and in 1986 Virago produced her collection of short stories for young adults, Hotel Romantika. Recently she completed a novel, which returns, in part, to the interwar years of her mother’s childhood.

She won an Amnesty International media award (2001) for her work on asylum-seeking children, and the Bar Council legal reporting award in 2014 for her coverage of joint enterprise law.

Andrea died in 1983. Melanie is survived by her husband, Malcolm Blair, a builder whom she married in 2007 after a long relationship, their son, Rory, and her half-brother, Francis.

• Melanie McFadyean, journalist and writer, born 24 November 1950; died 16 March 2023